How to Raise the Stakes in your Acting | Maximise the Dramatic Tension

How to Raise the Stakes in your Acting

Written by on | Acting Tips

“Nice performance, really well acted … but any chance you can raise the stakes a little bit?” It’s a fairly common piece of feedback for an actor to get—especially from a director or casting director looking to get a bit more from you in a scene. It can also be a frustrating piece of feedback. A low-stakes energy in a scene doesn’t necessarily mean your performance is bad, it’s that there’s more you can do to find some dramatic tension and excitement in the piece. Luckily, it’s something you can quickly get your head around and train yourself to work on. Let’s talk about how to raise the stakes in your acting.

If you want to know how to raise the stakes in your acting, look to analysing your script and interrogating your character. This will help you build believable obstacles and circumstances into a given scene that allows you to find the underlying tension. Once you have an understanding of the story world, you can employ strategies around your character’s objective and action within a scene that may yield more exciting results. Finally, be open to exploring and experimenting with how a scene or a character is portrayed. You never know what you might uncover!

In this article, we’re going to outline six things you can explore to raise the stakes in performance. You might notice that a lot of these areas are fairly fundamental when it comes to the actor’s craft. Don’t let this deter you: it’s often in returning to acting basics that we solve problems in our work that may seem far more daunting and complex. Let’s dive right in…

What are Stakes?

Stakes are the risks and rewards associated with a character’s actions in a story. The higher the stakes, the more impact that character’s actions (or lack thereof) have on their lives and the larger story world. From an external (audience) perspective, higher stakes make a story feel more important—and therefore more exciting. If the stakes are low, the risk to the character is diminished. And if you’re not careful, the audience will start checking their watches—or switching off their device completely.

Let’s use an example from our free practice scripts page. In the scene Cufflinks, a wealthy homeowner is trying to negotiate the return of cufflinks their cleaner has found on their rounds. What feels like an interrogation and accusation of stealing turns on its head when (spoiler alert) the cleaner reveals that they know the cufflinks don’t belong to the homeowner at all.

A low stakes reading of this piece might render the cufflinks unimportant. The cleaner doesn’t really need to hold onto them, the homeowner doesn’t particularly want them back. High stakes renders them as a life-or-death commodity. If the cleaner holds onto them, they could blackmail the homeowner for millions. And if the homeowner doesn’t get them back? Scandal. Ruin. Destruction. Sounds a lot better, hey?

How to Raise the Stakes in your Acting

Here’s the secret on how to raise the stakes in your acting: they have to be informed by the script/story/world. Too many (usually young dude) actors think that raising the stakes is as simple as making your character “secretly, like a hitman? And he’s trying to kill her in this scene?”—this is a direct quote from an acting class, with names redacted to spare the guilty. High stakes aren’t plucked from the plot of John Wick, they’re found in script analysis and deep thought on character.

#1 Best Case Scenario, Worst Case Scenario.

In any scene requiring a stakes-hike, ask yourself two questions: What does my character stand to win in this scene? and What is my character at risk of losing? If you can keep these things in mind based on the larger context of the story, you’ll bring that all-important sense of, well, importance to proceedings. And if there’s no larger context? You need to invent a best/worst outcome you feel fits comfortably within the narrative.

At drama school, my mentor (a playwright, but bear with me) told me this: every scene is a battle, and characters have to fight to win with every interaction they have. Locate the significance of said interaction, and your stakes will rocket sky-high.

#2 Define your ‘Moment Before’

What has occurred just before your scene begins? What’s just happened to your character? Are they coming from some terrible experience, or have they been dreading the interaction they’re about to find on stage/screen? Finding a compelling, engaging ‘moment before’ is a terrific way to build higher stakes into your work.

A moment before can really help to lift a scene with seemingly little dramatic tension. Say two characters meet up for a coffee and a chat. On the page? Kinda flat, not much going on. But if your character’s moment before is they were stuck behind a huge pile-up on the interstate as they drove to the cafe—forcing them to think about mortality and how they should tell this person they’re meeting that they’ve been madly in love with them for ten years—there might be something in that to excite proceedings?

#3 Exploring the Given Circumstances

Related to the above. Keep your given circumstances in mind throughout a scene: they are some of the best things for raising stakes.

  • Who am I?
  • Where am I?
  • What time is it?
  • What do I want?
  • How will I get it?
  • Where did I come from?
  • Where am I going?

GC’s are useful because they respond directly to the stimuli offered by the script as found in your scene analysis. But that’s not to say there’s no room for interpretation. If it’s 2am on a New York street in December, odds are your character is going to be feeling cold, tired perhaps a little vulnerable, even a little tetchy? And if the scene in question is a drug deal, suddenly your character might find themselves looking like they have explaining to do. That’s dramatic tension right there, before you’ve even spoken your first line of dialogue!

#4 Re-examine your Objective

Sometimes a lack of stakes is related to an unclear or weak objective. Ensure that your objective is something your character desperately wants, and from your scene partner and is something you can achieve before the scene is done. Any sum of these parts will work to a point, but rob you of dramatic tension.

The most glaring omission from an actor’s objective is usually the inclusion of the scene partner. Without the other person in the scene, you’d be performing a soliloquy (although that’s not to say you’re talking to yourself in those either.) So talk to the actor you’re working with! Communicate with them and look for what you want from them. This allows them to do the same back, creating conflict: the essence of all drama.

#5 Play Dynamic Actions and Tactics

If your objective is what you want, your actions/tactics are how you get them. Weak actions will always equal low stakes. The same goes for boring or obvious choices as well. Let’s look at an example with a simple line of dialogue: “Martha, can I borrow $25?”

Let’s say you do your action homework and settle on the incredibly safe, boring, pedestrian action of “ask”. Audible sigh. Obviously you’re asking for something: “ask” is about the worst word an actor can put down as an action in their margin, outside of “question”…

Just about any other action raises the stakes, because it plays stronger—riskier, with more to lose. How’s about “demand”? “Beg?” “Plead?” “Flirt?” “Charm?” “Threaten?” “Bargain?” Each of those actions are mini stories in themselves; they each speak to an idea that is far more interesting than our generic first choice.

#6 Experiment with How the Scene is Played

Finally, keep yourself open to trying different things—experimenting with different ideas. Finding higher stakes in your acting comes from trying and exhausting choices that might not always pay off. Why? Because high-stakes is always a risk for the character, and you may not get the outcome in the scene you were hoping for. Still, persevere. It may require you getting further from the scene you have in mind to find the truly exciting ways of bringing it to life.

When I coach actors as part of the StageMilk Scene Club, the best piece of feedback I get to give is to experiment. It means the rest of the work on a monologue or scene has been done, and now the actor gets to play. Is everything they try golden? Usually, it’s the exact opposite. But in those experimentations, the boldest ideas tend to present themselves. So take the risk: for the character and you, alike.

Higher Stakes Doesn’t Mean ‘Bigger’ Choices

One last piece of advice: something we have said in roundabout ways throughout this article. Higher stakes doesn’t mean your choices have to be bigger, or louder, or more dramatic. High stakes does not mean yelling, or being aggressive, or being wacky.

Sure, these might be things your character does to react to stimuli. But is it how they’d actually react, or what you think they should do to be more interesting? If that’s the reasoning behind a high-stakes choice, it’s always going to come off as hollow. Be genuine, and remember that a character feeling or enduring Big and Terrible Things will first and foremost try to look calm and in control.  They’re only human, after all.

Conclusion

There you have it: our cheat sheet for how to raise the stakes in your acting! There are so many places to find the dramatic tension of your scene—in the script, within your character, in the words on the page themselves or even wit the help of your fellow storytellers. So stay present and keep yourself immersed in your work. Do your research, do your analysis and know the part inside and out. No diligent actor can ever be accused of letting the ball drop and the stakes fall to nought.

Good luck!

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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